Jewish Free School (JFS) in North London, Britain’s top Jewish state school and indeed one of Britain’s largest schools overall, was yesterday charged with breaking anti-discrimination laws and ordered to remove a section of its admissions criteria that gives preference to ethnically Jewish children over religious Jewish children.
The decision comes in light of a series of controversies in which the off-spring of Jewish converts have been rejected from a place at JFS on the grounds that their mothers do not comply with chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ definition of Jewish. The issue first reared its ugly head back in 2005 when the son of Helen Sagal, whom converted to Judaism in Israel in 1990, was denied a place at JFS. Mrs Sagal’s conversion was deemed valid in Israel, but not England. The Sagal case opened a can of worms. The story of then 11 year old Maya Lightman quickly surfaced, who was denied access to JFS on similar grounds, despite her mother actually being head of English at the school.
The problem that plagues JFS is one that many denominational schools suffer from. What started off as a brave attempt to allow children to comfortably combine faith and education often gets complicated by other issues, especially when the school concerned is academic and therefore desirable for non-religious reasons. In the case of JFS, it has become tangled in the perennial debate of who is Jewish and what defines a Jew – issues that many deem inappropriate for an academic institution to be caught up in. Whilst most denominational schools try to be inclusive of all members of the particular religion, JFS, in common with many other Jewish schools, believes it has a right to exclude certain members based on a doctrinal belief that only Jews considered to be pure ethnic Jews (by virtue of their mother) can gain admission.
Fortunately, JFS have been forced to amend these archaic policies, but the extent to which the new guidelines will be followed has yet to be determined.